Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Run For the Harrison Hills! (Harrison Hills II, Part A)

Memorial Day 2015, the southern half of the Harrison Hills segment of the Ice Age Trail proved to be a grueling beast of a journey. Beautiful country, rolling terrain, and a practically biblical plague of wood ticks would test the patience, endurance and sanity of myself and my father who joined me on the hike. DEET Proved entirely ineffective at dissuading the little devils, and even our most thorough delousing had us picking surprise hitchhikers off our selves and our gear for weeks. Would not recommend. Didn't even wind up camping as we had originally planned.

So, of course, we had to go back. Masochism and refusal to let the segment win over us. But, this time we would approach Lookout Mountain from the North end. And we would bring with us reinforcements.  Joining Bob and I, this time, were Kevin and Nick. Kevin I've known for years, and lives in the area. Nick lives just over the border in Minnesota, and is part of an online community where I was discussing the hike, and managed to entice him into joining us. 

Preparations would begin far in advance, outfitting Kevin and Nick with the supplies that would help them on our journey. Kevin obtained a REI Traverse 70 backpack after test-driving several in the store, while Nick would wind up borrowing a spare external frame backpack we had. Both tried the Vasque Breeze boots whose praises I just cannot stop singing, and purchased a pair of their own. Same with the Snow Peak 900 Titanium Pot and my beloved $6 Cannister Stove. Kevin and I did a shakedown and hike cooking test at High Cliff State Park, and we really do need to get out there and hike more, get in better shape for our next outings. Nick too, got out more often, braving the early spring weather to make sure he was ready for the trek.

Day of the hike, Kevin drove up to Appleton to join Bob and I, and then Bob drove us to Merrill WI, where we linked up with Nick. From Merrill, we proceeded to County Highway B, to drop off extra water at our lunch site, and then from there, to the trailhead where we would begin. Nick packed up his borrowed pack, we sprayed on some permethrin to discourage the ticks, adjusted our packs, and we were off!

In the days approaching our hike, Northern Wisconsin DID see a few inches of snow, and some of it remained on the shadowy sides of hills, or on the trails, and I believe this was a boon to us, suppressing many of the ticks we may have otherwise encountered. I think the Permethrin also helped, because the gorgeous weather we had that day would drive temperatures above 60 degrees. The first leg of our trip was a rather simple one, navigationally there were simply a few turns at which other roads, or ATV trails, or alternate hiking routes converged with the Ice Age, and you just had to make sure you followed the yellow blazes. There were no sections of trail without an obvious path, and there were no connecting roads. The atmosphere was nearly one of fall, the ground still blanketed with fallen leaves, and the trees still bare of leaf due to how early in the spring it was. In motion, I had absolutely no need for my fleece, and soon had the sleeves of my shirt rolled above my elbows. The only obstacles we faced were minor hills, a few fallen trees across the path, and a picturesque stream swollen with spring meltwater, that obscured the blocks meant to be used in it's crossing. Bob and Kevin chose a wiser route than Nick and I did, but all four of us navigated, dry, across that obstacle and to the other shore.

It was not long before we reached camp, and we would take a short break there, at Chain Lake. Then, we searched the hills nearby for suitable locations to place our tents. The terrain was nice for the firepit, which sits beside the lake, but it was difficult to find sufficiently flat ground on which to pitch tents. Kevin made what seemed one of the smarter moves, and utilized my Xada hammock for his lodgings, while I pitched my REI Passage 2 nearby. Nick and Bob also had tents. I think, if I go back, I'm more likely to spend the night in my ENO Singlenest Hammock, which will be far more comfortable than the lumpy patch of ground that I fit my tent into. Lighter to carry as well. Once camp was established and we were refreshed, we hit the trail once more. 

From camp, we proceeded down the Ice Age Trail, maps of the area indicated that we would pass what was, or possibly still is, some manner of ski hill. As we rounded the other end of Chain Lake, we would cross a feed stream twice, pausing in between crossings to ponder some scat (we decided it was likely bobcat or coyote, we could have made a case for either) and scale a hill, at the top of which we found an unusual asphalt slab and stop because I forgot to take my Aleve. Pondering the purpose of the slab, we decided that it must have been related to the ski hill. The course of the trail took us around the hill and we never really saw where exactly the skiing occurred. At least I couldn't tell. I would be interested in going back just to explore that area in greater detail, but we had miles to conquer, and so we moved onwards. 

Beyond the Ski Hill was an area that I can really only refer to as the Logging Blight. I don't think we took many photos of it, it wasn't that picturesque. This was a zone of both old and new logging, which bared the hills upon which most of our course took us, and below us, in the valleys, lay marshes and bogs. We could see some watery attempts to either drain or navigate these valleys, some manner of road or shallow ditch, but the terrain was very reluctant to relinquish any part of itsself to man's design. It was around now, that the away team began to concoct stories of the local bog witch, who would surely crack our bones for marrow and sink us within the moist fens of her turf.  We were still encountering snow at this stage of the trip, though less of it where the canopy was stripped away. 

Hunger began to set in as we trooped through the blight, and we began to wonder when we would reach our designated lunch spot. I was about to say that we should just stop at the next clearing that looked suitable, and make our meals there, but a quick consultation with the app Nick was using to map our journey indicated that we were less than a quarter mile from the appointed lunch site. Mustering our reserves, we pushed on ahead and were soon rewarded with sight of County Highway B, and the ATV shelter at which we would cook our lunch.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Gear Up Heads Up! Kelty Cosmic Down, Jansport Katahdin, Hammocks

We're still mired in the snow and cold of winter here in Wisconsin, but now is an excellent time to gear up for the coming season. Clearing out old stock, has a bunch of things on sale. Catching my eye are:

- Kelty Cosmic Down 41 Degree: Sibling to my 21 degree bag, Kelty's Cosmic Down bags are a solid entry-level down bag, and I'm so warm in mine that I often find myself using it partially fastened to vent heat. If you're a three-season camper like me, the 41 degree bag is probably more than sufficient. Down Bags are Up in price, so $99 is a good deal on this.

- Jansport Katahdin 50: If you're still looking to try one of these inexpensive packs, this is one of the better prices I've found lately. $79 isn't as good as previous deals on it, but it's still a fair deal cheaper than a lot of other packs.

- Grand Trunk Roatan Hammock: It'll need straps (and the ENO SlapStraps are on sale) and Carabiners (I recommend the Black Diamond Neutrino Wiregate carabiners) but $41 is a decent starter price on a hammock. it's a bit bulky, apparently, so if space is a concern, maybe pass on this one. This Hammock Bliss Single looks interesting too, and it's only $42.

Stop the presses!!! Right after I saw those, I found this "Cutequeen Nylon Hammock". $15 for the base hammock. You'll still need the straps and carabiners, and I know nothing of the maker, but for $15, it's not a terribly big gamble. Apparently there's big "Cute Queen" branding on it though, so... well, that's up to you.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Made a trip to REI again

So, solo hiking is fun and all, but I'd rather go hiking with friends. So, I've been working on getting some of them to join me. My friend Kevin seems the most eager to get out on the trail with me, so we've been preparing him to go hiking with me this summer. His job schedule hasn't been matching up well with when our REI runs it's garage sales, so we decided that we'd go to REI and get a look at gear he might want and then I could go and hunt the garage sales for him. We wanted to get him fitted for a pack and boots at the very least, and look over what some of the tents were like.

Now, I've got a method for this. If you've been reading here, you know that I'd never buy a pack without a chance to put some weight in it and wear it for a halfhour or more. This is why I really love REI as a store, because they're well-equipped for this. They're happy to help you pick out packs and load them up with ~30lb of rice. So that's exactly what we did. First thing when we got to the store, we went over to the backpack area, and I grabbed a Gregory Baltoro 65 (in Medium) and a Osprey Aether 70 Figuring that 65-70 liters is about the sweet spot for multi-night backpacking trips. Too much more, and you overpack, too much less and you don't have enough room. We tried the Baltoro first, because I'm biased. My own pack that I am super fond of is a Gregory Baltoro 65 Large. We loaded him up and wandered through the store to scope out some of the other stuff we might want to get. But, after a halfhour wandering and browsing, Kevin complained of a knot near his shoulder blade just like I had experienced with the Osprey Aether when I tried it.

Switching packs, we equipped Kevin with a weighted Osprey Aether. Immediately he could tell that this wasn't the pack for him. We wandered around a little bit, including over to the climbing rocks in the shoe section, but he just felt like the tall and skinny build of the pack was too unbalancing for him. Interesting to me, was that Osprey changed the way that the back of the Aether is built. in 2014 when I tried one, there was a more distinct trampoline support between the pack and the person, while the 2015 (or 2016?) Aether has a somewhat different build there. By this point, I was glad that we'd come down to try them on, definitely wouldn't have wanted to order him either pack sight-unseen.

Our third candidate turned out to be the REI Traverse 70. This was an interesting combination of the Baltoro's more clingy build, with a trampoline back mesh like the 2014 Aethers had. Whatever the case, Kevin swiftly became sure that this was his new pack. Continued time wearing it only confirmed his suspicions. I was relieved, because we didn't have too many options after that, perhaps a larger REI XT or Deuter.

Conversely, picking out boots, our next task went rather swiftly. We had an excellent starting point, readers will know just how over the moon I am for the Vasque Breeze hiking boot. Well, it didn't take any more than that. Kevin tried them on, and felt an extreme and immediate sense of liberation. He'd been wearing the heavy duty work boots that he wears to his job, and switching from a heavy boot with a safety toe, to the relatively light and airy weight of the hiking boot put a real spring in his step. He didn't need to wear them long at all, he was sold. The salesperson assisting us said that he wasn't surprised about 70% of the people he's seen try the boot opted for it.

Anticipating filling up from my Gravity Camp 6L Kevin nabbed a 100oz Camelbak as well. Since we were looking at a relatively new, I believe new for this year, backpack our original "try and find it at a garage sale" plan wasn't going to work for his pack. However, since he signed up to be a REI Member, come spring he'll be getting 20% off, and we'll just wait till then to get the pack. Turns out though, that Kevin WILL be able to make the Garage Sale on March 12th.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Late 2015 Gear List #2

So, I've already done a Budget Gear List. But let's say quality of gear is more important than low prices. I still stand by my recommendations on the above list, and it'll probably be a LIGHTER list than this one, but I'm somebody who wants durable equipment, and I've learned that it's often better to buy a piece of gear that lasts, once, than to buy cheaply and have to buy again.

Backpack: Gregory Baltoro 65
Store: REI $299
Notes: I've got the 2014 version of this pack, and the worst thing I can say about it, is that the pockets on the belt are too small. the 2015 version of this pack remedies that, and even comes with a built-in rain cover. I would not hesitate for one moment to recommend this pack. Try one on!

Trekking Poles: REI Traverse
Store: REI $90
Notes: Another piece of gear I own, these poles have not been PERFECT, but they've been darn good. If I had one complaint, it would be the need to periodically tighten the screws on the locks. If I were thankful for one thing, it would be that I have the ability to tighten the screws on the locks.  They've got cork handles, they've got fliplocks with user-tightening screws, and they've survived a year of my abuse.

Tent: REI Passage 2
Store: REI $159
Notes: More gear I own, though I picked up mine for a third of the price at a garage sale. I considered more expensive tents but honestly, they all looked more complicated to set up. At the end of the day, with my energy spent, and my body aching, I'd rather have a simple tent. The Passage 2 is a two-pole X configuration, and it's hard to get simpler than that.

Sleeping Bag: Kelty Cosmic Down 20
Store: Amazon, $137
Notes: The slightly warmer version of the bag I recommend for my budget list. I got a 2014 closeout version of this for cheap at Scheels Sports in the Fox River Mall, but Amazon's price is the best I saw tonight. I'm a cold cold sleeper, and the Cosmic Down is so warm that I'm reluctant to leave it come morning.

Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout
Store: REI $60
Notes: The first gear on this list I don't own. I'd like to have an inflatable pad for the cushioning it would provide, though my Blue Foam Pad has done a fine job of insulating.

Cookware: Snow Peak 900 Titanium Pot
Store: REI $53
Notes: an awesome lightweight and durable pot, perfect size for cooking and eating the trail meals I've been listing on this blog. I'm quite sold on titanium, even if it commands a premium.

Stove:  Canister Stove
Store: Amazon $7
Notes: I love this cheap canister stove so much.

Water Filter: Katadyn Gravity Camp 6L
Store: REI $90
Notes: Only design I've found that has a standing cylinder for the filter. I believe that this combination of standing filter and gravity feed is the best option available.

Food Bag:  10L Food Bag
Store: REI $9
Notes: Combine with Paracord, Carabiner and Stick and you can use the PCT Hang on the bag and prevent Yogi from getting into your pick-a-nick basket. Yup! Same one from the other list. Some items there's just no need to spend more on.

Knife: Buck 110 Folding Knife
Store: Amazon $42
Notes: Buck Knives are my go-to for blades, and I'm quite happy with both my 110 folder, and 105 pathfinder fixed blade. When I'm hiking though, I prefer the 110. it fits better in my pack.

Utensil:  Sea to Summit Alphalight Spork
Store: REI $9
Notes: I'm still quite happy with mine. Puts up with a good deal of my abuse with nary a sign of wear.

Chair: REI Camp Stowaway
Store: REI $31
Notes: a camp chair is one of the few things I don't have, that I might like to. For now, my blue foam pad will serve, if I need to keep off the ground. But, it'd be nice to have a proper backrest in camp on the trail

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Bug Spray

So, our hike in the Harrison Hills region was a real wakeup as to the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of DEET, the most common active ingredient in bugspray. I sprayed myself up good, but it wasn't effective in the least. Not even with periodic reapplication from the travel-size 100% DEET sprayer I had in my bag. I don't know if it was NEVER effective, or if it's possible for insect populations to build a resistance to it, but whatever the reason, whatever it's history, it was clear to me that those familiar green cans weren't going to cut it.

See, I intend to go back into those hills, and I believe in preparedness. So I did my homework afterwards, and I tested a combination of two different sprays. Permethrin, which is used to treat clothing and equipment and Picaridin, which you can use on skin like DEET. Permethrin is safe to get on your skin, it's just ineffective on it. It only works if you get it on your clothes and boots and pack and tent. The upshot is, Permethrin doesn't just repel insects, it kills them. It's a chemical they derive from chrysanthemum flowers. But, a word of caution, it isn't safe for cats. So if you've got cats, make sure to throw your hiking clothes right in the wash.

Picaridin I know relatively little about. It might be made out of space captains. Nah, I did look into it and it's derived from a plant related to where we get black pepper. It was developed by Bayer in the 80s, but only approved for use about a decade ago.

Permethrin can be effective for up to two weeks. Picaridin's effective time is around 8 hours.

They can be used together, and they're what I used for the rest of the summer. They're relatively low odor, and not nearly as unpleasant as putting on DEET can be. Presumably you could all three, I haven't seen anything warning you not to. But just the combination of Picaridin and Permethrin was enough to prevent me from seeing another tick all summer long.

If you'd like to pick some up, this handy, portable pump of  20% Picaridin from Sawyer is as high a concentration as you'll find, the stuff I got from Fleet Farm in a red can was only 5%. And this spray can of Permethrin is what I've been using through out the summer. Fortunately, with that, you don't need to carry it on the trail. You can leave it in your car, or back at home.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Restless Wilderness' End of 2015 Budget Gear List

Backpack: Jansport Klamath 55R
Store: REI Outlet $107.73 
Weight: 57oz

My previous gear list had a phenomenal deal on the Katahdin 50L pack. The Klamath is the katahdin's external frame brother. Yes. Let me be clear. the Jansport Klamath packs are External Frame. As always the BEST things you can do for a backpack are to try them on with a load before you buy, and check the REI Garage Sales, but I can't really link to that on a blog.

The Klamath 55R is twice the price that the Katahdin 50, and since it's a 2014 closeout, I'm surprised that it's still so pricy. But, it's the cheapest pack I've been able to find at the moment. If you MUST buy a pack right now and you're on a budget, this looks like one of your best options. Yes, I did see smaller packs for lower prices, but I'm loathe to recommend lower than 50 liters for multi-day trips.

If you can hold out until say, Late Febuary, you might be able to get a better deal on things, or a newer revision. Personally, since it's winter, I feel like I can afford to wait. But, if you're gift shopping or looking to outfit yourself before spring rolls around, you could do worse than this.

Trekking Poles: Cascade Mountain Cork/Flip Locks
Store: Amazon $47
Like I said here Trekking Poles are a must. Cork is good. Flip-locks a must. $47 is hard to beat.

Tent: Stansport "Scout" Tent
Store: Amazon $23.88 
Weight: 60.8 oz

I'm just enamored with the idea of this tent. It's remarkably cheap and weighs less than my Passage2, and it reminds me of the LL Bean backpacking tent that my dad bought decades ago. You could shave off even more of the weight by leaving the poles at home, and using your trekking poles in their place. I think I'd rather be in my Passage2 if it were raining cats and dogs out, but this should keep the raccons from cuddling with you and hopefully keep you dry outside of monsoon season.

This is the same tent that was on the last iteration of my list, and I don't think you're going to find a tent cheaper than this. If you want to go cheaper and lighter, we start talking make-your-own gear shelters out of Tyvek and Dropcloths. which IS an option, there are ultralighters who do entire scenic trails with little more shelter than that.

Sleeping Bag: Kelty Cosmic Down 41 Long
Store: Amazon $87.17
Weight: 35oz

Same essential bag I recommended last time, but now for cheaper!  Where weight and warmth are a premium, Down is a must. Kelty's Cosmic Down line is a great entry level option, and my own hiking bag is a 2014 closeout Cosmic Down 20 Long I picked up at Scheels Sports in the local mall. I can vouch for these bags, and the 20 is almost TOO warm for me, particularly in the summer. the 41  ought to cover most people's three-season camping/hiking needs.

Sleeping Pad: Blue Closed Cell Foam Pad
Store: Wal-mart for roughly $10
Notes: Cannot find online
Weight: 7.5 oz

For whatever reason, Wal-Mart's online selection and their camping section at every store I've been to, have been in no way similar. I can't in good conscience recommend any of the ones I see on Amazon. I use one of these myself. My car camping self inflating insulation pad is a lot nicer to sleep on, but it's far far more bulky.

Item:  Bacon Grease Strainer used as Cooking Pot
Store: Amazon $9.69 
Weight: 3 oz (w/o strainer part)
Notes: Lightweight and Inexpensive, I keep seeing this popping up in people's gear lists. Up a few cents from before, but still quite affordable. Bring a pot lifter

Item:  Pot Lifter
Store: REI $1.93
Notes: Goes with the Grease Strainer. Needs a handle. Marked down since last time! (might be clearance now)

Item:  Canister Stove
Store: Amazon $7
Notes: Same stove I'm using. Wholly endorse this. Highest price to satisfaction ratio of almost anything I own.
Weight: 3.7 oz
Weight: 2 oz

Item:  Sawyer Mini Water Filter
Store: Amazon $19
Notes: Save on shipping by buying locally if you can find it for a comparable price. If you're in appleton, try the east side wal-mart. Consider pairing with Aquamira or Potable Aqua for thorough purification.
Weight: 6.4 oz

Item:  10L Food Bag
Store: REI $9
Notes: Combine with Paracord, Carabiner and Stick and you can use the PCT Hang on the bag and prevent Yogi from getting into your pick-a-nick basket.
Weight: 1.7 oz

Item:  Morakniv Companion
Store: Amazon $16
Notes: a basic, reliable, inexpensive knife. If you want something heavier duty, I recommend the Buck 110 folding or Buck Pathfinder 105 fixed blade knife.
Weight: 4.1 oz

Item:  Sea to Summit Alphalight Spork
Store: REI $9
Notes: I'm still quite happy with mine. Puts up with a good deal of my abuse with nary a sign of wear.
Weight: 0.4 oz

Gear Research: Inexpensive Trekking Poles

So, if you saw my last post, you can see one of the many reasons why I'm a fan of trekking poles. I also like my ankles to stay unbroken and functional. Those of you who know me offline know that this is a battle I do not always win. Those of you just tuning in, take my word for it, it's hard being my ankles. Certain Tent Designs, like the A-shape tent I link in my Cheap Gear List (which I intend to update for next season!) can actually replace it's poles with trekking poles. So, I really am a believer in trekking poles, and I don't regret a single cent I spent on my REI Traverse Poles, but at the same time I can see how someone might balk at $90 for a pair.

I've been thinking of pestering some friends with Costco memberships to sneak me into their walled garden, to get a look at the fabled $30 trekking poles reputedly sold there. But, I did a little research, and you can get them just as cheap on Amazon. Woah, woah, slow your roll, the $30 pair is basically a no-go. $30 gets you foam rubber grips, and twist locks. The handgrips are fine if you're snowshoeing or something where you're wearing gloves, and I suppose they'd do in a pinch, but take my word on it, you want cork grips. Meanwhile, twist-locks are just a cardinal sin and no mitigating circumstances exist to justify them other than "they cost less." But if I'm spending good money on poles to keep me upright, they damn well better keep me upright.

So, all is not lost, but they'll cost you a little more than that initial $30 pricetag. $48 on amazon will get you a set of Cascade Mountain Tech Flip-lock Trekking Poles. They have cork grips, for which your hands will thank you. They're carbon fiber, so they're possibly even lighter than mine. You get carbide tips inside of rubber stoppers, so you can choose what's appropriate for your use-case. Flip-locks are that much less likely to betray you when you need them most, and they're half of what I paid for my entirely reasonable REI branded poles. Especially at the entry level there's no need to lay out the $160+ that some of the brands can run.

The only thing I can think of that'd be cheaper, and still worth using, is to find some used ski poles at a garage sale. But then you don't get the cork grips.

This isn't exactly an endorsement per-se, but it is a heads up on something that I've heard other people endorse. If you pick some of these up, I'd love to hear how they work out for you. I'd be glad to link to, or include your review of them here.